By Svenja Oberender and Johannes Manz
The diverse NGO landscape in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt) can be confusing. Its fragmentation sometimes has a paralysing effect on the search for local partnerships and cooperation. A case in point is the environmental sector. A recent mapping study, conducted by Nada Majdalani Azzeh on behalf of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, aims to shed light on the variety of organisations, structures, and relationships of those NGOs active in the environmental field in the oPt. Heinrich Böll Stiftung (HBS) is a German foundation related to the German Green Party, which tries to support an independent Palestinian civil society and provide new perspectives on issues related to the ongoing Occupation and the political future of the Palestinians.

According to the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of the Interior, 2,245 NGOs are currently registered in the oPt, but only a few of them are focused on the environmental sector. An initial list of environmental actors (based on research, lists of organisations involved with the Palestinian Environmental NGOs Network, a list of organisations registered under the Ministry of the Interior, and data provided by the Ministry of Environmental Affairs) included 104 registered civil society organisations in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. However, upon further research, only 56 of them turned out to be still active.

Furthermore, many of the Palestinian civil society actors are organised in networks, which are often intertwined. On the national level, the Palestinian NGO Network (PNGO) is the main umbrella organisation, which has approximately 130 member organisations. It was established in 1993 with the aim to enhance coordination and cooperation between the different actors in the civil society sector. Amongst its members are environmental organisations, some of which are also members in the Palestinian Environmental NGOs Network (PENGON). PENGON was founded in 1996 and links organisations that share the same principles and are focused on environmental issues, such as the Palestinian Hydrology Group (PHG), the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees (PARC) and the Land Research Centre (LRC). Today PENGON consists of 13 registered member organisations and several supportive members, such as the Environmental Education Centre.

Although many of the environmental NGOs share common interests, 74 percent of the organisations included in the study’s survey describe the overall relationship between civil society organisations as competitive. The most prominent reason named for this is the competition for donor relationships, but also the drive to provide the best possible services to their communities and thus to expand their grassroots presence and basis.

The mapping identified eight key organisations active in the environmental sector. The basis for this selection was the variety of programmes implemented by the organisations, their size, and their geographic range. The study revealed that these key organisations maintain cooperation with each other while also working with smaller NGOs, either as partners or as beneficiaries. The key players are the Applied Research Institute-Jerusalem (ARIJ), PARC, PHG, the MA’AN Development Centre, LRC, the Water and Environment Development Organisations (WEDO), the Centre of Environment in Palestine (CEP), and the Palestine Wildlife Society (PWS). All these organisations share common interests in major environmental issues, including environmental awareness, access to natural resources, environmental legislation, water and sanitation, solid waste management, climate change, a green economy, and renewable energy.

Asked which geographical areas they consider as needing further intervention, the NGOs indicated that the Gaza Strip, Jericho, and East Jerusalem are the most sensitive areas and therefore require more NGO projects and activities. The role of the NGOs in the West Bank is often focused on addressing environmental injustice, which is largely connected to campaigning and advocacy. The environmental rights addressed by the NGOs are those related to access to water and land, as well as pollution and other violations committed by Israeli settlements. The major organisations that address environmental rights as one of their principle activities are PHG, ARIJ, MA’AN, LifeSource, and the members of PENGON.

The greatest problems in East Jerusalem as perceived by the NGOs are mainly related to day-to-day services including wastewater and solid waste management. There is very little environmental work in East Jerusalem compared to the West Bank and even to the Gaza Strip.

The environmental situation in the Gaza Strip was described as disastrous. Northern Gaza suffers from acute sewage problems within densely populated areas and improper use of fertilisers. In the middle governorates there is no wastewater treatment plant and raw sewage is pumped into the valley. Gaza City sewage is dumped into the sea, polluting surface water as well. Rafah suffers from desertification and the random dumping of solid waste on agricultural land due to its limited surface area. Finally, Khan Younis is the most environmentally damaged area in Gaza in terms of sanitation and hygiene. At least six environmental NGOs are active in the Gaza Strip, but they generally described their situation as unstable and unsustainable.

Among the actors outside the civil society sector, which are closely intertwined with the NGOs, are the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Local Governmental Units (LGUs), academic institutions and universities, and international organisations. NGOs mainly cooperate with the Ministry of Environmental Affairs, the Palestinian Water Authority, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Local Government, and several LGUs. The relationship between NGOs and the PA institutions is generally described as cooperative. At the same time, many organisations perceive the role of NGOs and their level of participation in setting national strategies and plans as very limited, which hinders their ability to make substantial changes within their fields of expertise. Even those few organisations that reported participating in setting the environment sector strategy or creating assessment reports on environmental conditions are not convinced that their comments and concerns have been accurately incorporated.

Most organisations lamented that the international donor community usually tries to act “neutral” and intervenes in practical ways without the necessary political will when it comes to addressing rights to natural resources, often focusing on what can be described as coping mechanisms for the Palestinian people. Very few projects directly address environmental justice and rights. The relationship of the NGOs with donors was generally described as cooperative, but at the same time highly dependent. Most of the programmes that donors fund revolve around water and sanitation or solid and hazardous waste. Medium intervention in environmental awareness and climate change was reported, and relatively limited attention is given to the green economy and renewable energy, especially in Area C.
This mapping survey shows the limits, needs, and opportunities for environmental cooperation in Palestine. While environmental issues, apart from water, have long been considered of minor importance, their direct relation to the ongoing Occupation as well as the fragmentation and marginalisation of Palestinians is obvious. HBS will continue to try to bring environmental actors together to discuss cooperation and civil society activities.

The mapping survey will be made publicly available in the near future by HBS. For more information see and follow HBS on Facebook.